TAMPA — Port Tampa Bay’s cruise ship business could go from thriving to shriveling without a plan to get the newest and largest of these floating cities past the limitations of the Sunshine Skyway.
The Florida Department of Transportation is preparing this week to release the results of a study examining four options to address the issue: do nothing, replace the Skyway, build a cruise ship terminal near the Hillsborough-Pinellas county line in Tampa Bay to avoid the bridge issue, or build a drawbridge at one end of the Skyway with a new channel for the giant ships to navigate.
The decision will likely be based on return on investment, transportation officials say. And that has yet to be studied.
“The Tampa Bay region has enjoyed a significant amount of cruise ship traffic through mainly the facilities at Channelside in Port Tampa Bay,” transportation department spokesman John O’Brien wrote in an email. “This business generates a significant economic impact for the region and the State of Florida. For many years, however, the cruise industry has been building ships which no longer can enter Tampa Bay ...”
The state agency sanctioned the study in April 2013 to review the options and get input from stakeholders, O’Brien said.
The transportation department’s seaport manager, Meredith Dahlrose, would not release the report in draft form last week under a public records request, saying the agency wanted to wait until it had finished compiling stakeholder comments.
Hillsborough County Commissioner Sandy Murman, who sits on the Tampa Port Authority Board, said she is eager to see the new study.
She said she hopes it finds that the best option for keeping cruise ship business growing here is to build a new cruise ship terminal on submerged lands Hillsborough County owns in Tampa Bay, west of the Skyway.
“We are getting close to a million passengers right now, and that is a very significant increase over recent years,” Murman said. “We’ve got a great relationship with the cruise companies. I know ships are getting bigger and I don’t want to lose that momentum, because it’s a huge economic driver for our area.”
Port Tampa Bay is the eighth-largest cruise port in the U.S., said Andrew Fobes, director of public affairs for the port.
He wrote in an email that the area is appealing to cruise ship companies because of its proximity to Caribbean cruise destinations, Tampa International Airport, a strong market in people driving to the port, and the attractions in the area.
Fobes said Tampa’s cruise business is robust.
Royal Caribbean International will add a second ship in Tampa in November, he said, and AIDA Cruises will use Tampa as a port of call beginning this December. AIDA will bring in a larger vessel the following season.
The port served 854,000 cruise passengers in fiscal year 2013 on five ships representing the world’s largest cruise lines: Carnival Cruise Lines, Royal Caribbean International, Holland America Line and Norwegian Cruise Line.
A report titled The Local and Regional Economic Impacts of the Port of Tampa, completed in 2013, states that the cruise ship industry was, at the time, providing 1,984 jobs and had a “total value of economic activity” of $379.7 million.
Local businesses and suppliers to the cargo and cruise industries at the port, according to the 2013 report, made $933.1 million in local purchases and were responsible for generating $90.9 million in wages and salaries.
This is no time to slow down, Murman said.
“We have the potential, if we do an off-site terminal, to increase our cruise passengers to up to 3 million,” she said. “I am hoping the study reveals that this would be a good move for us.”
Because Port Tampa Bay is updating its master plan, the timing is ideal, Murman said.
O’Brien said any future use of the study’s findings would have to be coordinated with the state Department of Transportation.
It is likely that the cruise ships would invest in any new infrastructure built for their benefit.
In discussing the issue in 2012 when the Port Authority began studying a Pinellas-area terminal, a Carnival Cruise Line spokesman said Carnival would be interested in a port that avoided the Skyway.
He also said it is unlikely that any new Carnival ships would be able to operate from the current Channelside facility.